Ouch! I Love You: Petting-Induced Aggression in Cats

By Suzanne Denk, Dip.FBST, Animal Enrichment Specialist

Have you received a “love nip” from your beloved cat while petting them? Even if they initiated the petting, they may sometimes turn and bite! Since the nip often doesn’t hurt, you may think it isn’t an issue. But it matters to your cat who has become uncomfortable and over-stimulated with the petting and nipped to get you to stop touching them. This bite is known as petting induced aggression.

These bites occur when you give your cat more attention than they really wanted. Each cat is different, but they all have a threshold which can be physiological and where touching becomes uncomfortable. A cat who is overstimulated will find petting and handling increasingly unpleasant even if they initiated the contact. Determine whether your cat is asking to be petted or just allorubbing, which is when they rub their body on you for a quick and friendly “hello” as they pass by.

Notice where and how your cat makes contact with you. Was it a head bunt or a full body rub? Did they continue to make contact or move on? Where do they like to be petted? For most cats, the head, cheek, chin and chest are the preferred location for petting. Long strokes, like petting a dog, are more likely to cause a cat to reach their threshold quickly.

The bite can seem to come out of nowhere, but your cat will first communicate with body language that the petting is becoming uncomfortable. If the body language is ignored, they will learn that the only way to avoid the growing discomfort is to swat or bite. If we can avoid unpleasant reactions to petting, your cat will be able to enjoy increasing interactions with people.

Watch for signals including:

  • Shifting of body weight
  • A stiffening body
  • Twitchy skin
  • Movement in the ears
  • The tip of the tail twitching
  • Piloerection (hair standing up at the base of the tail, the entire tail or spine)
  • Purring stops
  • Repeatedly turning towards the hand
  • Pupils dilate

Only when these communications are ignored will they hiss, swat or bite. It is always important to have a wellness visit with your vet and know that any aggression is not caused by pain.

Learn your cat’s signals and stop petting before they reach their threshold.

  1. Pet, stop and give a little treat.
  2. Notice how many pets or the time frame in which they use their body to signal for you to stop.
  3. Always end on a positive note.

Your cat may even choose to stay with you, but only wants the petting to end. Look at interactions from your cat’s point of view and determine if a bite is really a “love nip” or something else. Remember your cat may just be saying hello and not asking for hugs and kisses!

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